It’s Not Acceptable In Real Life, So Why Is Violence Against Women Acceptable On TV?
By Sarah Hughes
Did you watch The Fall when it first came out back in 2013? I did. And I was totally hooked. It was the series that introduced me to the delectable Jamie Dornan, long before he unleashed his whip in ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’.
I’m not going to lie; I fancied him. The Fall put Jamie Dornan on the map and gained him a legion of female fans. I mean, yes, his character was a serial killer and a rapist but hey… he was sexy wasn’t he? And the show wanted us to think he was sexy. And more importantly, they wanted us to be scared of him. If you weren’t checking in your wardrobe or under the bed before you went to sleep after watching an episode of The Fall; you’re a far braver woman than I am.
Whereas real-life murderers and rapists usually emerge in their mugshots either heinously frighteningly unattractive, or very non-descript; TV and film predators are quite often dazzlingly handsome, powerful or rich. The stalking of their victims is seen as almost flattering (I’m thinking particularly of Netflix’s You here) and their eventual attacks can be depicted as an intense sexual experience. I’ve watched plenty of these series and films over the years. From the charming psychopath who Michelle Pfeiffer found herself tortured by in Sleeping With the Enemy back in the 90’s, all the way through to the gorgeous Chuck Bass in Gossip Girl attempting to rape his girlfriend in the very first episode.
Similarly, creative media has constructed a skewed image of what a typical sexual assault victim should look like. Think about it; they are overwhelmingly white, slim, attractive and middle class. In truth we know that there is not an ethnicity, age or body type which is immune to sexual violence in the real world.
Now I know nobody is forcing me to watch this content; and believe me I’ve made a conscious effort to avoid it in the past. I swerved Game of Thrones when I heard it contained in the region of fifty rapes.
Did the audience really need to see that fifty times?
What did it achieve beyond possibly helping normalise it for the young impressionable viewers?
The problem with the saturation of this plot-line (my friends and I call it ‘the dead girl formula’) is that it has numbed us to the reality of those things going on in real life every single day. Without the suave protagonist and without the stereotypically gorgeous victim, real women are being raped and murdered day in day out.
By strangers, by family members, on first dates. And in real life I’m afraid it’s never sexy, never flattering, never acceptable.
Every now and again a real life murder is so shocking that it drags us out of our numbness and asks us to confront the grim, terrifying reality of a woman’s last moments. In the UK we saw that last year with the murders of Sarah Everard, Sabina Nessa and sisters Biba Henry and Nicole Smallman. It was this year of high profile coverage of the Reclaim These Streets movement that made up my mind for me: I’m just not going to watch that stuff anymore.
It feels somehow crass and disrespectful to watch the news and mourn these wonderful young lives lost… and then to settle onto the sofa to watch a thriller about a serial killer with a glass of wine in my hand.
I don’t believe that production companies make them in order to make us think or to affect any real societal change. They make them to ensure we feel vulnerable and afraid and in some way to turn rape and sexually motivated murders into the stuff of fantasy.
The youth of today have so much to deal with that my generation didn’t. Although thankfully schools and most parents are having much more open conversations around the issue of consent; the accessibility of porn has undoubtedly had a huge effect. The phones clutched in their hands right now open them up to a world of rough sex, blurred lines and pressure to perform, in a way we just didn’t have. While it’s generally accepted and back by extensive research that watching pornography at a young age can have deeply troubling effects on young people, are we as parents giving enough thought to the other stuff they’re consuming? While they Netflix and chill with their friends (I know that’s not what it means OK? I’m down with the kids) there’s every chance that they’re watching drama which glamourises and normalises violence towards women and girls.
The huge success of last year’s I May Destroy You suggests there is an appetite for a different type of thriller. One which deviates from the well-worn formula of ‘good looking man stalks and kills good looking woman’. In it, Michaela Coel plays Arabella, an up-and-coming author who is raped after having her drink spiked. What follows is an astonishing series which opens up huge conversations around consent, the aftermath of rape and the balance of power between the accused and the accuser. The show is even more interesting because it manages to weave in light and shade, rather than keeping it’s audience in a permanent state of anxiety as so many thrillers do.
Let’s hope the tide is turning. Commissioning editors, writers, producers… use your imagination. Find a new way to capture your audience.